Tonight’s passage from Matthew is a picture that can be very familiar to us. Every time you drive past a Builder’s Warehouse, you’ll see men standing and sitting around with tools and signs which read ‘painter’ or ‘plumber’ or some other job. Every time I run or drive down Mimosa road I pass two dozen men at two busy intersections sitting around and waiting for someone to stop and ask for a day-labourer. All down Ouklip there are men who stand around waiting for the offer of a job. There are many scenes in the Bible that might be unfamiliar to us because of time and culture, but this one we understand well.
So let’s read it together,
1“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. 3“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ 7“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ 8“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ 9“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ 13“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Now you have the story. But in order for us to understand this passage, we need to go back a few verses.
Last week we looked at the story of the rich young ruler.
A young man who is both rich and a leader of the Jews comes to Jesus and asks Him what it takes to get eternal life. Jesus tells him to obey the laws, but the young man says, ‘I’ve done all this, what do I still lack?’ Jesus is able to see that the young man loves his stuff more than God. So, Jesus tells him to go sell his stuff and follow Jesus; but the young man walks away sad because that’s a price he won’t pay.
We finished last week at vs. 26, now let’s read from vs. 27:
27Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” 28Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
That word ‘FOR’ at the beginning of chapter 20 is an explanation of Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question: “What then will there be for us?” Jesus’ answer: Eternal life!
Eternal life, friends, is not just ‘a really, really long time’. Eternal life is a term of quality as well as quantity. Eternal life has nothing to do with time, because it is outside of time. Eternal life is actually the fullness of God: All of Him, all of all He has and is. To have eternal life is to have God, just as in marriage: To be married isn’t just to be married but to have the fullness of a husband, the fullness of a wife – complete intimacy without barriers.
Jesus says in John 17 “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”
Eternal life is about having all of God and about being completely His. What more can God give than Himself? What less will God give when He has promised Himself and He is completely faithful?
The rich young ruler comes to Jesus and asks, without knowing what he asks: What good thing must I do to get eternal life? What good thing must I do to get God, all of Him, forever? He has much stuff, he wants more stuff, and in his mind, eternal life means just that: more stuff, more pleasure, more treasures.
The disciples have the same misunderstanding. When the rich young man walks away disappointed, the disciples jump up and say, ‘okay, Jesus – we’ve given up everything, what will you give us?’
Jesus’ answer? Everyone who has left everything for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. That’s the gift! That’s the reward! There’s no more than that.
‘But just so you understand,’ Jesus says, ‘let me tell you a story about the kingdom of heaven.’
It’s like a landowner who goes out at 6am and hires workers for his vineyard. He agrees to give them eternal life for their labours.
About 9am he goes out and sees other labourers standing doing nothing, he tells them, ‘You also go and work for me, and I will pay you what’s right’. So they went. He goes out again at 12 o’clock, then 3 o’clock, and finally 5 o’clock.
At 6 o’clock he tells his foreman to start paying everyone their wages. Those who came at 5 o’clock step up and receive their payment: Eternal life. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each of them also received eternal life. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last…you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
What do we learn from tonight’s passage? I want to say is shows us two things: It shows us 1) The character of God, and 2) The value of people.
This parable shows us
1. God’s Character
What do we learn about God’s character from this story?
A. God is Generous
God is generous. When you look at this story, Jesus’ depiction of the landowner shows him giving bountifully to those who were hired last. When you or I might undertake a project, we’ll probably look for every cost-cutting measure: the builder’s finished the job earlier than they thought, so let’s cut their pay because they worked less hours. Or if they took too long, let’s try cut their pay for wasting our time. Or if they over-used tools, it should come from their account; or if they underused the materials we bought, they should pay for it.
I’ve had this wrestle with the security guards at our complex. We have three security guards; two that have been there for all the five years I’ve lived there, and one position which is constantly changing. So, when it came to giving them a Christmas gift, I’d think…well, let’s give just to the two, because the other one has only been around for 3 months. And actually, let’s give the one a little less than the other because he’s not as nice.
We look for ways to cut costs and save some money, we’re tight-fisted and stingy, and if you or I were this landowner it would be no question that we should pay the later-hires less than the first! How little can we get away with?
But look at this image of God, who says to the complainers, ‘Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?’ Most people would have this defence for spending too little! But not the generous landowner. He says ‘Or are you envious because I am generous?’.
God is a generous God. He loves to pour out His blessings on both the righteous and the wicked.
Do you think you have good things because of some impersonal force of goodness which just happened to press into your life? Good health, good friends, a stable job, a regular income, a home to live in, a bed to sleep in, a fridge to keep food in – they didn’t come from thin air; billions of people don’t have these things. No! God looked at you and decided to pour out good things to you.
The ability to walk, to talk – God could take these away from you in a moment and He wouldn’t be wrong for doing that! Do you take them for granted?
The ability to breath, to see, to hear, to smell. There are 25,000 varieties of orchids, and the orchid is just one of 270,000 species of flowers. These, God created, in part, for you to enjoy!
God is so generous and ‘gives generously to all’ (James 1:5). And ‘of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace’ (John 1:16)
What is your view of God? Do you see Him as a stingy, slow to give and reluctant? Maybe you’ve asked Him for so many things and He answered with a ‘No’ and you feel that it’s because He doesn’t care or hasn’t heard or can’t right now.
But our Father is not a father sitting on his sofa reading the newspaper, and when you come to him with a request he brushes you off with a few words to bother your mother or come back later.
The Bible depicts God as an ever-attentive Father, generous with His time, generous with His attention, generous with His giving.
If you’ve been disappointed with God’s ‘No’s’, don’t stop asking; ask more! It might not have been the right time before, or you may have been asking for the wrong thing or with the wrong motives – those matter to Him. Maybe God wanted you to turn your eyes up and ask Him with trust again.
There are infinite reasons why God says no to our requests, and we don’t always know the ‘why’ He says no; but what we can know is the Character of God: that He is GENEROUS. And this story shows us that.
Not only is God Generous, but in this story we find that
B. God is Gracious
God is gracious. When you look at this story, Jesus shows this landowner as one who reaches out to those who others normally wouldn’t – the lesser-types of people.
Think about this: Who spends the whole day waiting to be hired but doesn’t find success until the end of the day? These hired at 5pm are the unwanted: the lame, the amputated, the small, the weak.
Other landowners would have come past at 7am, 8am, 10am and picked up the strongest and the most able of those standing around.
Yet the landowner doesn’t look at those he picks up later, even until 5pm, and think, ‘Well, they won’t do me much good. I’ll wait until tomorrow and rehire the strong that are waiting out here at dawn.’
Instead the landowner sees people that he can help. He already has it in mind to pay them the full day’s wages, but he doesn’t consider them unworthy of his kindness, his grace.
Friends, God is gracious. Psalm 145 (vs. 8) tells us that the LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The writer gets this character of God from God’s revelation of Himself. When God decides to reveal Himself in one of the clearest ways in Scripture, He shares His name and His character with Moses, saying (Exodus 34:6), “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” Of all God’s characteristics, He begins by describing Himself as merciful and gracious – He is the one who gives good to those who don’t deserve it and can’t repay it.
These, hired at 5pm, cannot repay the wage they are given through labour. You can’t do a full day’s work in 1 hour…though procrastinators would disagree. 'If you leave it to the last minute, it only takes a minute to do'. But these had gone and done the work, perhaps weakly, perhaps slowly, perhaps half-heartedly – thinking they’d only be paid a small amount after all
Yet the landowner – after the work was done – shows grace and kindness to these.
God is gracious, friends! He gives you what you don’t deserve. Not ‘them’ – you! Don’t think of yourself as the one hired at 6am and well-deserving of eternal life.
Arland J. Hultgren writes:
While interpreting and applying this parable, the question inevitably arises: Who are the eleventh-hour workers in our day? We might want to name them, such as deathbed converts or persons who are typically despised by those who are longtime veterans and more fervent in their religious commitment. But it is best not to narrow the field too quickly. At a deeper level, we are all the eleventh-hour workers…It is not really necessary to decide who the eleventh-hour workers are. The point of the parable…is that God saves by grace, not by our worthiness. That applies to all of us.
So, this story shows us the Character of God, and it also shows us
2. Human Worth
What is the worth of an individual?
An article I read recently described the immense wealth of the world’s richest man: Jeff Bezos. He is the first person whose wealth broke the $100b mark. He is now valued at $121b. That is, by the way, R1.7t. Try and wrap your head around how much this is. He makes over R36,000 per second. That’s roughly three times the average monthly salary amongst South Africa’s formal sector. Here’s a mind-blowing fact: His wealth is so great that an average person spending R7 is similar to Jeff Bezos spending R17.5m. That is, what you would feel buying a chocolate next to the till is how he would feel buying a Sandton mansion.
Let that sink in.
That’s his wealth. What’s his worth?
The Muckleneuk Murders over the past several months have highlighted the struggles of the homeless and their apparent worthlessness. It reminds me of the case of the Waterkloof Four, if you remember, from the mid-2000s. Four teenagers beat a homeless person to death simply because he was homeless and they came across him.
These homeless might have very little except what they carry around with them.
That’s their wealth. But what’s their worth?
Picture a government minister being driven to a meeting – four security vans, blue lights flashing, a police escort – as they drive past a man in a wheelchair at the traffic light trying to sell flowers. Both are people of equal value; one defended against any harm, the other cast aside and ignored.
All through history there are those who have been seen as worth more and those who have been seen as worth less. And even we as Christians easily fall into the same thinking.
But this is not true for God or in God’s kingdom. This is seen throughout Scripture, and again is seen in our passage tonight. A person is valuable for one reason only: A person is valuable because they are made in the image of the Almighty God. And that is as true for the president of the United States and the Queen of England as it is for the shepherd on the hills of the Eastern Cape or the waste-picker on the streets of Jo’burg. The question is: Do you see that?
Do we – we do! – quickly glance over people and deem whether they are worthy of inviting into the labour force of God: Not the dustbin-men – no! not the drunkards, not the waste-pickers, not the double-amputee selling beaded flowers outside the Checkers…? Not the homosexual, the adulterer, the crooked politician – no! Not the man who stole our bakkie, or the one who cut ahead of us in the cue, or the one who stole our spouse? Do we consider that God is able to make them equal to us?
This is the issue that the labourers in our story argue with. They don’t complain that they’ve been cheated, they complain instead that ‘You have made them equal to us.’ Do we consider that God is able to make them equal to us? Do we rejoice in that fact as much as in our own salvation?
I say again, stop seeing yourself as the 6am labourer. You’re not! You’re not repaid this incredible gift of eternal life – a treasure that can’t be valued – because of your hard labours or your incredible potential. Stop thinking like that! We are all eleventh-hour workers. God saves by grace, not by worthiness.
All of us – all of us – are made in the image of God, and therein lies our value and the value of others. Each person you meet, whether in the boardroom or at the petrol station, have equal worth in God’s eyes and are as worthy of entrance to eternal life as you.
Let us close with two questions.
Question #1: What is my pay?
Eternal life is your pay. Whether you have been labouring for the LORD all your life, or just recently; whether you’ve given away 50% of your income, or 10%, or 2%; whether you still struggle with a porn addiction or have conquered that and other great sins; your pay is eternal life – life with God.
Question #2: What is my job?
To labour in God’s vineyard. To look to Him for direction and instruction. To obey His commands, both the general and the specific, whatever they might be. What is God calling you to do tonight? To labour with all joy and all diligence. To labour gratefully, even when it’s hard. To labour trusting the character of the landowner: That He will indeed pay whatever is right as He promised.
Let us rejoice in the character and the promises of our God, and let us labour faithfully knowing that He is gracious and generous to those that are His.
Finally, those here tonight who are not in the field of the Lord, here is an invitation to you. It is the eleventh hour, and the time will come when the day is over. It is not too late to accept God’s invitation. Call on Him, reach out to Him, He is gracious to save even you even now. Simply say, ‘Lord, I accept your invitation to work for You. I give You my time, my life, all I have.’